The “Conceit” Used in the Remake of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage
The remake of Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 mini-series, Scenes From a Marriage, streaming on HBO was directed by Hagai Levi, teleplay by Levi and Amy Herzog. Daniel Bergman, one of the executive producers, is the son of Ingmar Bergman, who created the original Swedish TV series that was later a film, also available on HBO. Daniel approached Levi some years ago about doing the series and Levi has talked about his decision to do so and changes he made in interviews you can find elsewhere.
My view on this extraordinary choice to use the conceit of “breaking the fourth wall” provides insight into the essential conflict not only of choosing to remake this well-known and accoladed series by Bergman, but also the profound conflict both renditions reveal. But Levi’s in my view is the more intense for our day and more intense for the courage it took to do the remake.
In much of the criticism and evaluation of both series, women’s liberation, independence, and divorce are highlighted.
What Levi has done is to add the “conceit” of breaking the fourth wall for the viewer—and he does so, as I’ve said, in every episode. Critics have criticized this choice, been bemused by it. I assert its brilliance in this essay.
Some of the titles for the scenes are exactly the same, but I was most struck by the title by both author’s/director’s choice of “The Illiterates”.
Here are the titles from the original six-part Bergman series. Levi used all but the second in his five episodes—and perhaps that omission is in itself revealing. I will explain more about what I mean by that as I proceed here.
1 “Innocence and Panic”
2. “The Art of Sweeping Things Under the Rug” (not used by Levi)
3. Pauline –“Poli” in Levi’s remake –as he has reversed the roles of the two main characters.
Levi gives the role of the partner who leaves the marriage to Mira (Jessica Chastain) along with most of the inclinations and intentions of Johan (Erland Josephson) who leaves Marianne (Liv Ulmann) from Bergman’s original, increasing the emotional weight of loss for Jonathan (Oscar Isaacs) in Hagai’s version. Important to point out here is that in both versions the emotional weight and the significance of what occurs in the marital relationship weighs heavily on both partners and in both versions.
4. “Vale of tears”
5. “The Illiterates”
6. “In the Middle of the Night in a Dark House”
On “The Illiterates,” in an interview with Ben Travers of Indiewire, Levi said, “There is an episode … when Mira says that they’re illiterate about breakups, not about divorce, not about marriage.” His comment reveals, but I believe he’s also exploring more than he states about love, marriage and commitment than what he says in that quote.
Having watched both the original and Hagai Levi’s remake, I am struck by the intensity of both and, in contrast to many reviewers of the new HBO mini-series, many who disparage it, I assert that Levi has, in fact done a sterling job of both recreating and, indeed, increasing the intensity of the original. The performances by Chastain and Isaacs are marvelous, moving, and in each episode, both hold the viewer with their immersions in the roles.
Clearly, I loved this new series, its courage in taking on a Bergman masterpiece, and bringing new depth to the roles. Levi and his actors’ achievement informs the conflict I am asserting that results, once you’ve viewed all five.
The deeper conflict that Hagai Levi reveals is certainly our understanding today of the ease of breakups and the prevalence of divorce. But what he and, I believe, Bergman also explore is the way we are illiterate about the complexities of love that lasts—and indeed it does in both versions.
Levi’s use of breaking the fourth wall accomplishes much. He, of course, pays homage to Bergman’s achievement by clearly showing us that these are “scenes” from another theatrical version. In the last episode of the HBO series, he does this incredibly effectively. Mira repeats to Jonathan this line: “In the middle of the night, without much fanfare, in a dark house in the middle of the world.” When asked by Jonathan: “What’s that?” She replies, “It’s from a movie.” And of course it is a line that Johan says to Marianne at the end of the Bergman series.
But the meaning is even more powerful for what these characters have experienced.
Breaking the fourth wall causes the viewer to step back from the play acting, to take the whole of what we are seeing and examine our suspension of disbelief that soon occurs—kudos to the whole production for that achievement for each episode locks us totally in its hold.
But, perhaps, most important, is that Levi focuses us on play acting.
He causes us to check ourselves. Yes, we know for sure we are watching a fiction that seems so real. That observation is like a boomerang. We must look at his attempt in the abstract and, I believe, Levi may even have said that in the interview I referred earlier to. But I take his achievement further: He asks us to look inside ourselves and ask key questions about what love that lasts is worth.
Most important, these “Illiterates” are play acting their way through a love that has bumped up against trouble: Another attraction, the boredom of the everyday-ness of marriage.
I think he chose not to use “Sweeping Things Under the Rug” because he doesn’t need that “telling.” He’s got more to play with about the nature of love and the plays we create for ourselves. He has no need for this title. Something bigger is under Levi’s rug.
What becomes clear in every episode is that despite Jonathan’s and Mira’s assertions that they are meant to be apart, we see that they delude themselves, that they proceed to do everything they can to preserve the love they have broken. They do so without getting formally back together.
Too easy is the explanation that monogamy is dead. And, of course, Bergman had five marriages—and that may have been his view. But I don’t think it is Levi’s, despite his admission that he has experienced a divorce.
The power of the new HBO series is its intense focus on love that inexorably lasts—Its worth. Levi intensifies the effect because in our day divorce is so common whereas in Bergman’s day, the opposite was true. As a possibly apocryphal aside, it is even said that the Bergman series was credited with dramatically increasing the divorce rate in Sweden the year after the series ran.
The play acting of the characters, as each asserts the rightness of the breakup—even as they continue to be drawn to one another—is emphasized in Levi’s remake with his use, just one example, of Purim as the anniversary moment that Jonathan recalls for him and Mira. Levi, a Jewish Israeli, has given Jonathan a deeply Jewish past. Purim is the holiday for dress-up, for play acting, much as these two characters have play acted the truth of their love by disputing it only to affirm its importance.
Don’t miss Jonathan’s nightmare in the fifth episode that totally mirrors Marianne’s in the Bergman series. I won’t explain because that would be a true “spoiler.”
After her similar and disturbing nightmare, Marianne, in the Bergman series, asks, “Have we missed something?”
Yes, these characters in scenes from their marriages have missed this: Play-acting as a metaphor for reality. And the reality is love that can last—despite breakage.
I’ll close by adding that I speak from experience. See the memoir (Re)Making Love, available on Amazon and from my publisher.
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